Will we say, when Binyavanga Wainaina came out? It feels like a significant event. Or not.
Will it pass into nothingness next week? Possibly. And perhaps tomorrow will be like yesterday. Even then, whatever the day after brings with it – yet another war in Mali, newly-coined billionaires in Angola, horrific rape in South Africa or the DRC, world-changing invention by a Kenyan, or interpersonal murder that goes unremarked in Libya – whatever new thing, good or bad, comes out of Africa, all those who are fond of this sometimes unlovable place must think of thanking Wainaina for these gifts, his bravery and humour and thought.
Binyavanga Wainaina, leading Kenyan author, founder of Kwani, and director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, came out on Saturday 18 January 2013. He turned 43 on the day.
Or is he playing mind games with us, as he suggest on the video?
Appropriately, the wordsmith came out in a piece of writing, something in-between a memory-work essay and short story. “A lost chapter from One Day I Will Write About This Place” was published in several places, including Chimurenga’s Chronic and Africasacountry.
The newsy-ness seems to naturally follow the idea that an African man can desire another man, or an African woman can sexually love another woman. The idea of homo-desire still sends many people around the world into irrational convulsions. The fact that many African states prohibit non-heteronormative sexualities, some with long prison sentences and death, is what contributes to the excitement around Wainaina’s coming out.
Here is an excerpt from the powerful essay:
I am twenty nine. It is 11 July, 2000. I, Binyavanga Wainaina, quite honestly swear I have known I am a homosexual since I was five. I have never touched a man sexually. I have slept with three women in my life. One woman, successfully. Only once with her. It was amazing. But the next day, I was not able to.
It will take me five years after my mother’s death to find a man who will give me a massage and some brief, paid-for love. In Earl’s Court, London. And I will be freed, and tell my best friend, who will surprise me by understanding, without understanding. I will tell him what I did, but not tell him I am gay. I cannot say the word gay until I am thirty nine, four years after that brief massage encounter. Today, it is 18 January 2013, and I am forty three.
Why does he swear? Is he having us on? Why does he feel we would not believe him? Is this fiction or real life stuff? Does it matter?This is how he concludes the piece:
There will be this feeling again. Stronger, firmer now. Aged maybe seven. Once with another slow easy golfer at Nakuru Golf Club, and I am shaking because he shook my hand. Then I am crying alone in the toilet because the repeat of this feeling has made me suddenly ripped apart and lonely. The feeling is not sexual. It is certain. It is overwhelming. It wants to make a home. It comes every few months like a bout of malaria and leaves me shaken for days, and confused for months. I do nothing about it.
I am five when I close my self into a vague happiness that asks for nothing much from anybody. Absent-minded. Sweet. I am grateful for all love. I give it more than I receive it, often. I can be selfish. I masturbate a lot, and never allow myself to crack and grow my heart. I touch no men. I read books. I love my dad so much, my heart is learning to stretch.
I am a homosexual.
The essay was followed by a set of six short videos in which Wainaina speaks about a range of things. The videos were shot and edited by Jim Makestuff Chuchu, video artist, photographer and musician from Nairobi.
The overarching title for the videos is We Must Free Our Imaginations, but each is self-contained and is given a title of its own, such ‘Bring me the obedient children’, ‘Africans are natural’ and ‘China will own us’. The videos cover a range of subjects, including sci-fi, imagination, photocopying, education, witchcraft, religion, economy, sodomy (as the Victorians called it), the middle-class, his friend Carlota, and many others.
Below is Jim Chuchu’s introduction to the videos. He concentrates on the notion of weirdness. In the process he tells us about his own work, and something new coming out of Kenya. (Makestuff is not his name, by the way. I made it up. Because he once answered a journalist’s question on what he does for a living, with “I make stuff. Because it changes every day. I really don’t have a label for what I do”).
Jim Chuchu: “We Must Free Our Imaginations” is a six-part interview/lecture series in which Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina speaks (mostly) on the fear of imagination. Binyavanga asked me to help him put together some sort of video thing that would allow him to talk about this ever more constricted space for imagination in Kenya. It was shot on Monday night with the help of the wonderful crew at the NEST, edited on Tuesday and released on Wednesday. Part history lesson, part lecture, part conversation about ourselves.
The subject of the boundaries of Kenyan imagination has always been of interest to me as I have always existed in spaces that were hard to define. I have always been called ‘weird’, and it’s taken years to become comfortable with the tag and – these days – enjoy the freedom that comes with being outside of the Kenyan mainstream consciousness.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a place that cherished all kinds of men and women. The weird. And the loving. And the subversive. Wouldn’t it? The gentle as well as the conservative. The imaginative, creative, scientific, playful, serious and inventive. The homosexuals, and the kind, and the tough as nail too, and the heterosexuals and bisexuals and intersexed too. And every other sort you can think of? Wouldn’t it be better than having the wars and irrational big men and those who tell us that god is punishing us for god knows what?
Watch the videos. And let’s have more of us start living a life of a free imagination.